by Zach Brittle
One of the most common areas of conflict for couples is around the issue of finances. It’s a tricky topic because it’s one of the only issues in a marriage that is measurable. The ability to measure gives us the ability to assign worth. Assigning worth is dangerous business in a relationship, especially when it opens the possibility that one partner is more valuable than the other.
On your wedding day, most of you stood up and something like, “I promise to love you for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.” At that moment, in strictly mathematical terms – and presuming you’re knitting your financial futures together – one of you got richer and the other got poorer.
There are a ton of factors that define this reality. Maybe one of you brought more debt the relationship. Maybe one of you is a higher earner. Maybe one of you is expecting a huge inheritance.
The problem is that, in a relationship, finances can’t be understood in strictly financial terms. Like I said, it’s tricky. And it’s important that couples get ahead of this early. Because when you don’t, it’s challenging to adapt to changing conditions: like when one of you loses a job, or when that inheritance does come in, or when you have a baby.
Here are some ABCDs to consider as you do the work of making sense of money in your marriage.
A: Assess your Assumptions
You may not even be aware of all the assumptions you have about MONEY. But you definitely have them. Your first lessons about money came from your parents. What was that like? My wife was raised with and around a lot of wealth. I grew up in rural Virginia and had my first paying job at 12 years old. We have very different assumptions about money.
It’s important that you expose and explore all the assumptions you have about MONEY. What is “a lot”? What is “enough”? What would you do with more? What would you do with less? What do you believe about debt? What do you believe about value? What do you believe about cost?
Understanding all this will help you provide a foundation the complicated decisions you’ll have to make over and over again about financial issues. Ideally, these conversations will also give you a basis for understanding one another as you make specific decisions about spending.
B: Build your Budgets
Money is at least two things: It’s MATH and it’s MEANING. Budgets are mostly about MATH. Let me go on record: I hate budgeting. I hate the spreadsheeting, but mostly I hate the sense of confinement and judgment and then shame and rage and fear I have when it doesn’t “add up”. But budgets are a necessary evil, I think.
Simply put, you need to know how much you have coming in and how much you have going out. If the math is net positive, you have some freedoms to set goals. If the math is net negative, you have some responsibilities to solve problems. You don’t have to have a spreadsheet. Some of my clients have come up with really creative ways to keep track of what’s coming in and going out. There’s also no shortage of apps that can help you keep an eye on things.
If you don’t know, however, then you don’t know. And you don’t know what you don’t know. This ignorance keeps you bound up and keeps you from both chasing your freedoms and solving your problems.
C: Count your Costs
This is more about MEANING. I believe there are ton of different economies in a relationship. I learned this at Disneyland. We took our kids there when they were 4 and 8. It cost us a lot of money we didn’t actually have. But we knew we wanted them to have that experience at that age. Watching my kids embrace Cinderella and scowl at Captain Hook was beyond priceless. Worth every penny plus interest.
The economy of the dollar bill is easy to measure and important to consider. The economy of time is similar. There are 168 hours in a week and you have to carefully steward those hours if you want to get the most ROI. There are also the economies of energy, affection, attention, joy, stress, opportunity, and in the case of our Disneyland trip, magic.
If you make all your decisions based on MATH, you’re likely to discount the value of these other economies, so it’s important to get them all in view. And to prioritize the ones that are most consistent with the values and goals you have for your family.
D: Discuss & Decide
This is a critical skill in with regard to any topic in a relationship. You have to differentiate between discussion and decision and then you have to be clear about the rules for both phases. I recommend drawing a very clear line between the two.
When you’re in the discussion period (which could be 10 minutes or 10 weeks or any other period), you have the freedom to dream. To compare ideas…even ridiculous ones. Your discussion should be informed by the first three phases above. Recognizing the many complicated assumptions, and budget realities, and costs that come into play.
The decision is a little tougher. Start by being clear when and how and when you’re going to make the decision. There really isn’t a best way…what’s best is that you agree. Will you decide? Will he? Will you flip a coin? Will you base it on math? Meaning? Will you ask for help? Again, agreement is the key.
Working through these ABCDs can help take the edge off of some of tension around finances. Next time you’re tempted to slide into the same old conversation or conflict, take a minute to work through these phases and ensure you’re working on MEANING more than MATH.
About the Author
Zach Brittle is a licensed mental health counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist based in Seattle, Wa. He is the founder of forBetter, which offers online courses for couples, and the best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet. His writings and insights have also been featured in Verily Magazine, Psych Central, Happify, Men’s Health Magazine and the Washington Post. He has been happily married to Rebecca for 18 of 19 years – year #8 was pretty rough. Together, they have two daughters (9 & 13), a minivan, and most of the silverware we got as wedding presents.